Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Family History at Its Roots

I’m sure most of my blog readers will remember Alex Haley, the author of two outstanding books in black literature – The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots.

I met Haley in late 1981, not too long after the delirious success of Roots.

I, along with several other members of the family, was returning from visiting my grandmother in Little Rock, Arkansas. She had just turned 100, and we had been there to celebrate her birthday.

It was such a great time. The following are a couple of paragraphs from a piece I wrote for the Los Angeles Times in late 1981:

It was grandmother’s 100 birthday. We descended on her house in Little Rock, Ark., like swarms of bargain hunters at a post-Christmas sale, covering every inch of space and eating everything that resembled victuals. Several of us overflowed into a local motel, but we managed to get most of our meals at Grandmother’s.

We tramped in and out of the house like foreign tourists, each with his camera or tape recorder. When we weren’t snapping pictures, or rolling tape or film, we gathered around Grandmother to plumb her mind for information on the family and the old days, a la “Roots.” We found no long-lost ancestor; what we found was Mary Elizabeth Williford, our own delightful heroine.

Actually, I had visited Grandmother several times before to record her memories of the past. I had no idea what I would eventually do with the information, but I knew I didn’t want her to die without leaving a record of all the history she had lived through.

She was born in Oak Ridge, La., on November 18, 1881, the granddaughter of ex-slaves. When her grandparents were set free, they were given 40 acres and a mule by the government, she said. The family later acquired 180 acres, but finally abandoned the property due to frequent flooding.

After the birthday celebration, we were on our way back home to Los Angeles but had to lay over for about an hour at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. While most of the family sat in waiting the area, my cousin Howard and I decided to browse the gift shop.

“Guess who just walked in?” Howard asked me.

I looked up as Alex Haley strode toward us. Who more than the author of Roots would appreciate the visit we’d just had with our 100-year-old grandmother, and the memories she had shared?

I told him about her and all the fun we’d had during the visit.

“That must have been a wonderful occasion,” he said

It was, Alex, and you capped it off perfectly.


Keni said...

This story reminds me of meeting my wife's mom in Hermatige, Arkansas. She and my father-in-law were, as were your relatives, land owners.

Brings back good memories. When's your book coming out?

Vision Publishing said...

Hi Keni,

I come from Arkansas myself, and I remember very well those shotgun houses. They were extensive throughout the South. You could stand in the front yard and look straight through every room to the back yard. Privacy was not a consideration when those houses were built. But, for the most part, the people in my area in Little Rock were renters, not owners.

As for a book on my grandmother, I haven't figured an angle yet, other than simply publishing a memorial to her. Unfortunately, only one of her children is still alive, and she's in her 90s. To do the book justice I would have to do some extensive research, but I'm not sure such an outlay of time and money would justify the outcome.

Here's one thing I could consider: Use her life as a jumping off point to a book of fiction.